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39 – Marieke Van De Rakt & Taco Verdonschot on Yoast, the Past, Present and Future – WP Tavern

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast, which is dedicated to all things wordPress, the people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case, running a successful WordPress plugin business.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast, player of choice. Or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy and paste that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m very keen to hear from you and hopefully get you all your idea featured on the show. Head over to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox. And use the contact form there.

So on the podcast today, we have Marieke Van De Rakt & Taco Verdonschot. And they’re both from Yoast SEO.

I think it’s quite likely that you’ve heard of Yoast SEO, but in case you have not, it’s a very popular WordPress SEO plugin installed over 5 million times. They’ve been optimizing websites for many years and make significant contributions to the WordPress project, committing to Core, sponsoring events and many other things. I sat down with them both at WordCamp Europe, and we talked about some of the recent changes that have taken place within the company.

Having worked hard to build and maintain their company’s reputation, they decided that it was time to steer the business in a new direction by selling it to Newfold Digital. We get into the reasons for this acquisition and the subsequent reshuffling of the management of the company. What were the details of that agreement? Why did they join forces with Newfold Digital in particular? And how has the acquisition gone?

We also talk about their long standing commitment to contributing back to the WordPress project. Why have they done this? And what benefits have they seen from this approach? Why do they bring so many of their team to WordCamps?

Although Yost is well-known in the WordPress space they recently brought their product into an entirely new market, Shopify. This has led them to create a SaaS version of their SEO solution and has brought them into contact with a completely new market. How has this move gone? And does it mean they’re moving away from WordPress?

Typically when we record the podcast there’s not a lot of background noise, but that’s not always the case with these WordCamp Europe interviews. We were competing against crowds and the air conditioning. And whilst the podcasts are more than listable. I hope that you understand that the vagaries of the real world were at play.

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading over to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all of the other episodes as well. And so without further delay, I bring you. Marieke Van De Rakt & Taco Verdonschot.

I am joined on the podcast today by Marieke van de Rakt and Taco, go on.

[00:03:48] Taco Verdonschot: Verdonschot.

[00:03:49] Nathan Wrigley: I tried that many, many times in the past. How are you both doing?

[00:03:53] Taco Verdonschot: All good.

[00:03:53] Marieke van de Rakt: Yeah. Great, great, great being back at an in-person event.

[00:03:57] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. What are your thoughts about that. Genuinely, what are your thoughts about being back in in-person events? Because I know the Pavlovian response is, it’s great to be back. I think that, but is there any bit of you, which is mmm?

[00:04:08] Marieke van de Rakt: I have a hard time recognizing people because it’s been two years. I see now that everybody has that problem, so it’s like, I know you I’ve danced with you. I don’t know who you are.

[00:04:20] Taco Verdonschot: And especially when people are masked. You just see the eyes and, and if they like gained a lot of weight or became a bit grayer like me. Or lost a lot of weight, there’s definitely.

[00:04:33] Marieke van de Rakt: It’s harder.

[00:04:34] Taco Verdonschot: It’s a change and with a mask on it’s a lot harder to recognize people. So I’m really happy with the badges that have the names on both sides. Which means that it will at least always give a clue and not be turned the wrong way like sometimes happens at WordCamps. Yeah.

[00:04:50] Marieke van de Rakt: So I think it’s good being back, but it’s also, it’s different. It’s just, it’s been a while seeing people in such a way. We’ve talked online, but that’s really different.

[00:05:01] Nathan Wrigley: For me what’s strange, and I know this is gonna sound ridiculous, is that you are not this big and I’m making a gesture about six inches high, but also you both have entire bodies. It’s not just from the sort of waist up. We are on contributor today, so basically very little has happened so far. But what are your expectations of this event? What does Yoast bring when it comes to an event like this? What are you hoping to do? Do you have like a battle plan? Do you just bring the whole team and just see how it goes? I know you’ve got sponsorships and lots of things like that. So tell us what your agenda is.

[00:05:32] Taco Verdonschot: We’re sponsoring, as you said, and we brought a nice booth. There will be activities, and of course there will be stroopwafels, loads of them. So make sure that if you’re here you don’t miss out.

[00:05:43] Nathan Wrigley: I’m gonna pause you there because I don’t know what that is.

[00:05:46] Marieke van de Rakt: You don’t know what stroopwafels are?

[00:05:49] Nathan Wrigley: No

[00:05:50] Marieke van de Rakt:You can have like a lot of them because we don’t bring them back anymore. Right?

[00:05:52] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah. So stroopwafels are cookies, are waffles with sort of a caramel in between. And they are delicious. That’s that just says it.

[00:06:04] Nathan Wrigley: In the brief time that I’ve been around the auditorium, you win in terms of t-shirt density.

[00:06:11] Marieke van de Rakt: I saw the same thing. I think a lot of companies don’t give their employees, t-shirts to wear or different ones. We also, because I have a new one actually Taco but it’s exactly the same color, so it matches.

[00:06:23] Nathan Wrigley: And there’s nobody with the purple, so it genuinely stands out. But it also means, I think, that you bring a big team. Which also tells me that you’ve got a big team. 140, something like that? And I was looking earlier today at the stats for contributions in the version 6.0 of WordPress. Automattic, always the big circle and then there’s companies, which are vying for second, third. And it always seems like Yoast is number two by a long way. Is that a big part of the Yoast system? Do you encourage your team to contribute and all of that?

[00:06:58] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah, so we have a Core team. That’s four people working full time on WordPress Core. And that’s a big part. We also host internal contributor days. Well, actually we’ve opened them up to the community. So everyone can join remotely, or at the office nowadays. One of the reasons why you’re seeing so many of the purple shirts today is because our entire team is signed up for contributor day, and everyone is contributing to WordPress today. So probably you’ll see more brands and, and more colors tomorrow, but bringing people to contributor day is definitely a part of who we are.

[00:07:35] Marieke van de Rakt: It’s what got us started. So we are really invested in making WordPress better, because that’s just what we’ve been doing from even before Yoast was a company.

[00:07:44] Nathan Wrigley: It’s been an exceptional commitment though. It’s not an ordinary commitment.

[00:07:48] Marieke van de Rakt: I think so, too. So I, I’m really glad you’re saying that. We have an exceptional commitment to making that better. And I think more companies should follow that lead because that way we can really make it better together. So we can bitch with each other about what should be better, or we can just sit down and make sure the work gets done.

[00:08:08] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. It’s been a busy couple of years for Yoast. Obviously there’s been the pandemic. Presumably you had to figure out what the office looked like or didn’t look like and what zoom calls you were gonna foist on people and so on and so forth. You mentioned that you’re back to the office a bit. But apart from all of that, there’s been quite a lot of personnel change, especially recently. Joost as in Joost, the man not the product, has changed roles. You’ve changed roles. Taco has got a new role. I saw a photo the other day with several people who’ve got new roles. Tell us a little bit about that. What brought that about, and then maybe we’ll get into the acquisition piece.

[00:08:42] Marieke van de Rakt: Yeah. Well, because that was the trigger. I think about a year before we had the acquisition, we started the process. I already knew that I wouldn’t want to be the CEO of the company anymore. I think that role is really, it’s a really heavy one, and it’s also a very public one, and it’s just been tough. And COVID was tough. So, when we decided to sell, I already knew that I wouldn’t want to be the CEO of the company anymore, but I still wanted to work there. But go back to a role I had before I was the CEO.

So I think the acquisition got us all into that change process. So the first thing was that I announced that I wasn’t going to be the CEO. Now, Joost is an advisor. Omar left. Our CTO, well, I just texted him that I really miss him. But I also understand we’ve been doing this for quite some time.

Joost himself got a bit bored, not with WordPress though, but with SEO, and wants to do other things as well. And is currently experienced a lot of FOMO he said. But he’ll be here tomorrow. So he’ll be on Friday. He said to me, oh, you’re all contributing and I’m just writing a blog post.

So, yeah, those things changed, and I’m really excited because we, um, we now have room for new people to grow because you could see Yoast as this big old oak, and that’s good and that’s solid. But it also takes away the sun for other trees to grow. So now it’s the time for at least within Yoast, to have new talent and new leadership.

[00:10:17] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. Okay, so just sticking to the top tier management, just run us through the changes. Who’s now in? Who’s got those key top tier jobs?

[00:10:25] Taco Verdonschot: So I think that list should always start with Thijs, our CEO. He took over that role from Marieke, I think last year, October.

[00:10:34] Marieke van de Rakt: Somewhere like that.

[00:10:35] Taco Verdonschot: Around that time, and then as of April this year we had the bigger change, that we introduced a seven people leadership team. So that’s obviously Marieke as head of strategy. That’s Chaya as chief operations officer.

[00:10:51] Marieke van de Rakt: She was already also in the old board. She came in COVID time. So this is her first WordCamp. She was with us for quite some time.

[00:10:58] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah, and then there’s four new names, and that’s Irene on the R and D side. Inge on the marketing side. Herre for all the technical stuff. And me as a head of relations.

[00:11:12] Marieke van de Rakt: And those four have been working with us for more than five years. All of them. Yeah.

[00:11:16] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah. All of those.

[00:11:17] Nathan Wrigley: So if we rewind the clock about five years, it feels like nobody was being acquired in WordPress. It was all very quiet. And then about four years ago it began. And then two years ago it was really, there was a daily news cycle of somebody’s been bought in the WordPress space. And then you came in and I must admit I follow the WordPress news pretty closely. I didn’t see that one coming. Tell us how that came about. How far do we need to go back before the dates that it was announced, when all the negotiations started, and why you mentioned that Yoast himself was getting a bit bored. But for other reasons, I’m sure as well, why did that process begin? And how long was that process?

[00:11:54] Marieke van de Rakt: So we talked to parties before just because you get a lot of questions. So it’s not that we never thought about a possible acquisition or funding before. But we’re totally bootstraped, and I think Christmas 2020, so the first COVID Christmas, that was when Joost and I decided we should sell or get major funding. And the major reason was that COVID got us scared. We were doing great but it was so much work. We sell in dollars, so we make money in dollars, but all of our costs are in euros. And that makes you very vulnerable for the exchange rate of the dollar.

And that’s something you can’t control. And with a hundred, I don’t know 125 people on your payroll, the responsibility was weighing heavily on both of us, and that’s just something that we didn’t want to do anymore. So then we hired, we hired a banker actually. Someone who helps you to sell your company. And we’ve talked to a lot of, well, the usual suspects. Then decided eventually to sell to Newfold.

[00:13:03] Nathan Wrigley: So what was it about the offer that they presented, which said, okay, that’s it, the green light over there. Was there something in particular? Were there any red lines that you presented to them? Right, this cannot happen, if we’re gonna sell to anybody. Yeah, just that kind of idea. What were the things that gave the green light to them and not to others?

[00:13:19] Marieke van de Rakt: So when we were selling, we thought about three things. We thought about ourselves. What’s good for us. And then we thought about what’s good for Yoast the company, and what’s good for WordPress. So we wouldn’t sell to a company that would just do things that would be bad for WordPress. And we won’t sell to a company that would say you have fire half of your staff or something like that. So would be good for our employees. It would be a good fit for WordPress. And I think the offer of Newfold, Newfold wanted to buy us because of our commitments in WordPress.

So they were impressed with our WordPress Core team. They wanted to do more in WordPress and, so them inquiring us was part of their mission to show we love WordPress, which is the best reason to buy us, I think. And I thought their leadership was really diverse. And I’ve talked to a lot of boards and they’re mostly male and white and a bit gray, and there’s nothing wrong with people that are male and white and gray. But it’s nice to see some diversity in that. Well Newfold Digital is led by a woman. I’m really impressed by her. So that was at least, for me personally, a big reason to choose for them as well.

[00:14:33] Nathan Wrigley: It’s a name which doesn’t roll off the tongue. What I mean by that is, you know, everybody’s heard of Yoast, everybody’s heard of Automattic, but maybe not so much Newfold Digital. Can you just tell the listeners which bits of Newfold Digital may we have heard of before? Because I know they’re a company which are behind other companies.

[00:14:48] Marieke van de Rakt: They only exist for like a year and a half now and they’ve been combined. So the Endurance group, which Blue Host is the biggest brand. And then you have the web dot com side, but that’s not a WordPress side. And those two companies were combined into Newfold Digital, and they only existed like a half year and then they acquired Yoast. So it’s a really new brand.

[00:15:09] Nathan Wrigley: In terms of job stability and all of those kind of things, you mentioned that that was an important part. How’s that going,? Have roles changed? Has the company still got the same focus that it had a year ago? Well, let’s not say a year, six months ago, or have you noticed any changes and I’m firing this one at Taco.

[00:15:27] Taco Verdonschot: So yes, there have been changes due to what we just described in, in changing in leadership, but in terms of direction of the company, it’s not that Newfold comes in and says, Hey, you need to go left or you need to go right. For exactly what Marieke just told, is they bought us for what we do and who we are. That’s still true today. So they kept their word from that whole process and are still supporting us in being Yoast and offering SEO for everyone.

Have there been changes in the company in the last six months? Yes, we, we are slowly changing. The workforce landscape is changing, and we’re changing with it. But nothing forced by the acquisition. This would’ve happened anyway if we weren’t sold.

[00:16:14] Marieke van de Rakt: Ah, and nobody left after the acquisition for a few months.

[00:16:17] Taco Verdonschot: No.

[00:16:18] Marieke van de Rakt: So that wasn’t related to that.

[00:16:20] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah.

[00:16:20] Marieke van de Rakt: I think the biggest change was just that the office is opened up again. And so everything’s different.

[00:16:26] Nathan Wrigley: In terms of how the company can behave, the inflow of money I presume, you mentioned payroll and how concerning that was. Does that kind of thing evaporate a little bit more? Do you need to worry it a little bit less about payroll, because that’s now worried about somewhere further up the food chain?

[00:16:42] Marieke van de Rakt: For me that’s changed dramatically. So I used to look at the sales every day. I think Joost would look at it every hour, and see if it’s all going well and that changed, and that gave us a lot of… I was talking to Joshua Strebel, who of course also sold and to like, taking a coat off, that’s what it is. It’s taking a coat off, and I still feel a huge responsibility of getting that company with new leadership into a stable, good new path, but it’s different.

[00:17:11] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah. The funny thing is for me, it’s quite the opposite.

[00:17:14] Marieke van de Rakt: Yes.

[00:17:14] Taco Verdonschot: Because before, Marieke and the rest of the board would take away all those financial concerns from even the highest management level.

[00:17:25] Marieke van de Rakt: That wasn’t the best idea though.

[00:17:26] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah.

[00:17:26] Marieke van de Rakt: We did that. We never told anybody about our financial stress. We were doing great, but we were experiencing, oh, we have to grow, and…

[00:17:34] Taco Verdonschot: That was really something that was kept away, and now with, my new role, I’m suddenly seeing all the numbers and seeing what the numbers mean and how they influence decisions that we’re making in the company and vice versa, how decisions are influencing our, our revenue stream or our cost. And that’s a whole new world. So, for me, I’m looking more at numbers and for you, it’s obviously with less worry than before. Yeah, we, we found common ground now.

[00:18:05] Nathan Wrigley: Two years ago, or whenever it was 2019, if we’d have had this same interview, we would’ve been talking about Yoast SEO and nothing more. But now we can talk about Shopify. That’s a big change. A giant of a platform. Just give us the theory behind why Shopify? Why not, I don’t know something else like Drupal, or some other thing like Squarespace? Is that product receiving the same care and attention, shall we say as the WordPress side? Do you have any plans to go into other CMSs, maybe SaaS products, like I said, Wix and Squarespace and so on.

You don’t have to release any of that valuable information if you don’t want to of course. But tell us about the Shopify thing first. Whoever wants to take that.

[00:18:43] Marieke van de Rakt: We have a TYPO3 extension, of course.

[00:18:45] Taco Verdonschot: Yes and Neos as well.

[00:18:47] Marieke van de Rakt: So we, we had some before, but we, as a pact internally would say that we wouldn’t do any non open source CMSs, but still we are doing Shopify. So we made the decision, partly because we wanted to be less dependent on WordPress, because although we love WordPress, it’s very scary if you bet all your money on one thing. So it could be a wise business decision to go into Shopify.

They asked us to come. So Shopify wanted to improve their SEO so they worked together with us. They asked us can you build Yoast SEO for Shopify? So that was a big reason, and their core values are pretty aligned with us. So that was the thing. Okay, we’re going to let go of the open source part because they’re really for the small businesses.

So it’s either Amazon because that’s how people sell, but at least on Shopify, you have your own website, your own store, and that’s really important. So that’s why I think why we decided Shopify.

[00:19:44] Taco Verdonschot: And I think it’s the close source system or SaaS that comes closest to the open source mindset, because it really supports the small businesses, and you can get started super easily on Shopify and anyone and everyone can start a shop. And that is different for a lot of other systems.

[00:20:06] Marieke van de Rakt: And it’s growing like crazy. So it’s also a really good business opportunity.

[00:20:10] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah I have no insight into how that’s going. So it is growing.

[00:20:15] Marieke van de Rakt: Yes.

[00:20:16] Nathan Wrigley: Are you growing with it? Is it taking you along for the ride? Basically, has it been a good move?

[00:20:18] Marieke van de Rakt: Well, We’ve built the thing ourselves, which is a lot of work because Shopify isn’t WordPress. we’ve launched it. We had a successful launch, but we’re not as well known in the Shopify world yet. So we’re growing gradually and that sounds like bad news, but I love that because that’s what we want to do.

It’s so much fun. We’re celebrating every five star review we get. So we have a dedicated Shopify team and they’re so excited to get people to like our product, but Shopify just works a little differently and you can’t paste your WordPress product over it. So we’re tweaking it and it gets better every day.

[00:20:55] Taco Verdonschot: Every single day. So the good thing about our Shopify app is that it fully is a SaaS which means that were not bound to releases that people then have to install. And if we decide to push something, it’s live right now. That’s a very big difference compared to WordPress, where you’re relying on people to install your updates and to actually keep their site up to date, et cetera. So it’s a really different way of developing.

[00:21:25] Marieke van de Rakt: Yeah.

[00:21:26] Nathan Wrigley: Marika. You’ve got a, I was gonna say a talk, but it’s not. You’ve got a panel. Just tell us what this panel’s about.

[00:21:31] Marieke van de Rakt: This panel is about acquisitions and WordPress. I’m just going to sit there and if they ask me a question then they’ll answer. I think a lot of people want to know, the ins and outs of what happens and what does this mean for WordPress?

[00:21:43] Nathan Wrigley: SEO in general. What is going on in the future? I’ve been seeing quite a lot coming out of the Google verse. Awful lot of people talking about things like AI content and whether or not that’s gonna be squashed. What do we need to be mindful of in the next 12 months in terms of SEO?

[00:21:58] Marieke van de Rakt: I think the main thing Google does is wanting to present the best result to the user. So if you’re stable in SEO and just create good content, AI or not AI because it just has to be good. And there are really good AI tools out there, but it should be something your reader will want to read.

And not just something you, nobody wants to read. That’s not serving anyone. That’s the thing you need to do. But at the same time on the technical side, we are really looking at what Google is doing. So then you need to just install Yoast SEO, because we’ll make sure to get the latest technical stuff in there. So the way Google crawls and stuff, we’re really mindful of that. But I think a normal user wouldn’t be able to adapt that in a website settings.

[00:22:42] Nathan Wrigley: I have this concern that we’re gonna be creating content with AI, which is then in turn, the sole purpose of that is to be consumed by Google’s AI. And it’s like this cyclical effect where…

[00:22:55] Marieke van de Rakt: But then you’re doing it wrong way because you should always create content for a user. Yeah. And I am a writer. So I am not particularly fan of AI created content, but I have to be honest, sometimes it’s pretty good. But it should be original content.

So, you should at least insert enough information in your AI that it’s an original thought, because an artificial intelligence can never come up with something new. It’s always something that’s already out there. So make sure you write something that people want to read. That’s the only advice that I can give you. Maybe Google won’t be the only search engine out there.

There are all kinds of rumors that Apple is doing stuff and rolling out his own search engine. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s something that could happen as well. Google doesn’t have to be the only, Yoast SEO isn’t the only SEO plugin. Google doesn’t have to necessarily be the only search engine.

[00:23:50] Nathan Wrigley: Is that what you focus most of your energy though, because presumably if there is an Apple SEO search page, your work then sort of doubles because you’ve got to try and figure out their algorithm as well as the Google algorithm.

[00:24:02] Marieke van de Rakt: They’re probably doing the same thing. It’s the same with Bing and…

[00:24:05] Taco Verdonschot: Yeah, in the end they have the same goal. They want to answer a user’s question. So in order to do that, you need that good content. If you want to rank first, you need to be the best result. That’s basically it. Regardless of which search engine you use to find that.

[00:24:23] Marieke van de Rakt: Wouldn’t it be fun though? I would get excited again with SEO, if there would be a different kind. Maybe a privacy more minded kind, because that would be awesome.

[00:24:32] Nathan Wrigley: Have you heard of a search engine called Kagi? K A G I.

[00:24:36] Marieke van de Rakt: I haven’t.

[00:24:38] Nathan Wrigley: Do you remember ManageWP? It is created by him. It’s in beta only at the moment. And it’s gonna be a paid for search engine and you’ll pay them a hundred dollars a year, something along those lines, for no tracking. So the gamble is that you pay. It’s actually really interesting. K A G I.

Yeah. So what are you gonna do over the next couple of days, the pair of you? What are you hoping to get out of this specific event? Who are you gonna go and see? What things are you excited about?

[00:25:03] Taco Verdonschot: So we made a great start yesterday evening. There was a party by Pagely, and it was on a, on a boat, with so many people and a lot of familiar faces that we hadn’t seen in three years. And that’s going to continue because over the course of this event, we’ll see our old friends and meet a lot of new friends.

[00:25:23] Marieke van de Rakt: Interesting conversations with possible partners. It’s exciting to meet our Bluehost new colleagues and our Yith colleagues who are all part of the Newfold family, so that’s something I’m looking forward to as well.

And I am looking forward to talking to actual customers because I use WordCamps to talk to customers and ask them why they like our product and what they dislike. And, well, I haven’t done that for ages, so only with people in our local community.

[00:25:51] Nathan Wrigley: I’ve got a feeling I know what the answer to this question is. In 2023 WordCamp Europe, wherever that may be, will you be back?

[00:25:57] Taco Verdonschot: Yes.

[00:25:58] Marieke van de Rakt: Yes.

[00:25:59] Nathan Wrigley: Taco, Marieke, thanks for talking to me today.

[00:26:01] Taco Verdonschot: Thank you so much for us.

[00:26:03] Marieke van de Rakt: Thank you.

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